From day-one of the crisis that has gripped Kenya this year, much of the mainstream media has been quick to label the violence “tribal warfare,” while the top US envoy to Africa called the Kenyan clashes “ethnic cleansing.” The problem with those terms is that they don’t actually explain anything. Yet many people hear the words “tribal warfare” or “ethnic cleansing” and assume that people’s identity is the root of the violence in Kenya.
We live in a time when the notion of a “clash of civilizations” passes for political science and an us-versus-them mentality (“you’re either with us or with the terrorists”) is the basis of super-power foreign policy. The crudeness of those ideas makes it hard to remember that, while identity can be mobilized in the service of hatred, a person’s “tribe,” ethnicity, or religion does not cause or motivate violence.
So what does? In the case of Kenya, tribal categories are a short-hand for describing people’s unequal access to political power and economic resources.
Since Kenya won independence from Britain in 1963, a small Kikuyu elite has dominated government and business opportunities. Meanwhile, most Kenyans have been dangerously impoverished by the debt crisis that began in the late 1970s. Like many countries throughout the Global South, Kenya was forced to sell off state-owned assets like major transport and telecommunications systems and to cut government spending to repay loans to big banks and rich governments (mostly in the US and Europe). As a result, millions of Kenyans have been denied basic resources and services, like health care, clean water, education, and decent housing.
When Mwai Kibaki was elected in 2002, he promised to share power and resources more equitably. Instead, he allowed Kikuyu elites to keep control of the country’s wealth and governing institutions. That betrayal galvanized support for Raila Odinga’s opposition Orange Democratic Movement (ODM), especially among the poor. In December 2007, Kibaki’s party rigged national elections to prevent the ODM from unseating him and disseminating political power and access to basic economic resources more broadly.
Those are the real grievances fueling the violence today. They have their roots not in any “ancient tribal rivalries,” but in government policies meant to enrich a few at the expense of the majority. Kenya’s poor majority includes members of the Luo, Luhya, and Kalenjin tribes, who initiated the protests in December, and most Kikuyus, who are not part of the governing clique but have been scapegoated in the crisis.
Thinking of Kenya’s conflict as a class war rather than a tribal war reveals those aspects of the crisis that are about material things: a fight over access to farmland, housing, and clean water. But that explanation alone misses a more complex reality. Because identity is fluid, partial, and somewhat subjective, tribal or ethnic divisions can be calcified, even created, when identity is invoked to mobilize people for political ends. Both Kibaki and Odinga are guilty of goading people to violence in this way. And every time the BBC or the Washington Post utters the words “tribal warfare,” they help propel the self-fulfilling logic of identity-based violence. It’s a dangerous game: once violence is unleashed, it takes on its own momentum. We’ve seen that dynamic to grave effect in Yugoslavia, Rwanda, and Sudan. And that may be what we’re witnessing in Kenya now, as protest over a disputed election seems to have morphed into something uglier and more dangerous.
The way that people define a crisis shapes which solutions they choose. That’s why a lasting solution to the crisis in Kenya requires junking the hollow concept of “tribal warfare.” Tackling the poverty and inequality that politicians have perpetuated by manipulating ethnicity may prove a lot tougher than resolving an electoral blow-out. But there are Kenyans who are paving the way forward.
On January 25, the “Kenyan Women’s Consultation Group” addressed peace mediators Kofi Annan, Graça Machel, and Benjamin Mkapa. The women call for “comprehensive constitutional reform that would ensure equitable distribution of national resources,” as part of their far-reaching peace proposal. Like many progressive Kenyans, the Women’s Consultation Group recognizes that while inequality in Kenya runs along tribal lines, it’s the inequality, not the tribal identity, that is fueling the violence today.